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Volker Schlondorff's Cinema

Adaptation, Politics, and the "Movie-Appropriate"

Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis

Publication Year: 2002


Volker Schlöndorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics and the “Movie-Appropriate” examines the work of major postwar German director Volker Schlöndorff in historical, economic, and artistic contexts. Incorporating a film-by-film, twenty-eight chapter study, Hans-Bernhard Moeller & George Lellis reveal a complexity and formal ambitiousness of Schlöndorff that is comparable to that found in Wenders, Herzog, and Fassbinder. In spite of Schlöndorff’s successes with films like The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum and The Tin Drum, as well as his acclaimed work in the U.S. with Death of a Salesman, Gathering of Old Men and The Handmaid’s Tale, this is the first in-depth critical study of the filmmaker’s career.


In the context of film and television history, this book relates Schlöndorff’s oeuvre to the New German Cinema, to his formative years as a student and production assistant in France, and to his roots in the Weimar cinema’s tradition. It reveals how Schlöndorff entered into the German film production system in the 1960s, how he came to rely on German public television in the 1970s, and then moved to the international and American financing in the 1980s, attempting to redevelop the Babelsberg studios in a 1990s post-Wall Germany while continuing to make his own films into the 21st century. The book captures how Schlöndorff’s nearly half century of ongoing creativity and productivity ties together.


The authors analyze the artistry of each Schlöndorff movie arguing that his output as a whole embodies a provocative and sometimes contradictory set of balances. Schlöndorff combines commercial interest with significant artistic ambition, blends the kinesthetic pleasures of moving images with the seriousness of fine literature, links the intensity of individualized personal experience to an awareness of broader political issues, and represents a specifically German sensibility even as he reaches out to the international audiences. 


The authors demonstrate the cyclical recurrence in his cinema of certain themes (individual and collective rebellion, fascist suppression, masochistic love), narrative patterns (the Western, the thriller, the subjective mood piece), and stylistic approaches (Brechtian Verfremdung, the creation of careful leitmotif structures, the use of the grotesque). In over thirty years of filmmaking, Schlöndorff has produced a remarkable unified body of work that deserves the attention of a book-length study. Authors Hans-Bernhard Moeller and George Lellis offer the first such study of its kind.


Volker Schlöndorff’s Cinema: Adaptation, Politics, and the “Movie-Appropriate” features forty-one illustrations.

Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Book Title

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List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

We thank colleagues who read sections of our manuscript at various stages, including Robert Reimer, Hubert Heinen, Kathie Arens, Charles Ramirez Berg, Lois Gibson, Cristóbal Serrán-Pagán, Charles Affron, David Desser, and Klaus Phillips. We are grateful to the two anonymous readers who reviewed our manuscript on behalf...

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1. Introduction: The Historical Importance of Schlöndorff

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pp. 1-10

During the 1960s, cinema redefined itself. Baby boomers worldwide were entering their teens and young adulthood—the demographic ages at which moviegoing peaks. At the same time, the classicists of the Hollywood cinema, like John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchcock, were moving into the twilight of their careers. They were leaving...

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2. Schlöndorff and His Sources

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pp. 11-22

In surveying Volker Schlöndorff’s development as a filmmaker, one can note how he merges two major traditions—one French, one German. If his chronologically more immediate model is the French cinema of the late 1950s and early 1960s, the works’ basic aesthetic heritage is the German cinema of the Weimar period and its extension in...

Part One: The Early Schlöndorff: Suppression, Pop, and Protest

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3. Young Törless

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pp. 25-39

In May 1966, for the first time in the postwar era, West Germany had a real contender at the Cannes film festival. After two decades of mostly marginal and irrelevant film production, Germany had produced a work that made the festival audience sit up and take notice: Volker Schlöndorff’s...

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4. A Degree of Murder and “An Uneasy Moment”

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pp. 40-47

When an interviewer asked Rainer Werner Fassbinder in 1974 whether any films by contemporary young German filmmakers particularly appealed to him, his response mentioned Schlöndorff’s A Degree of Murder (Mord und Totschlag, 1967) (Wiegand, “Interview” 69). The affinity between the two directors was at its peak during the second half of...

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5. Michael Kohlhaas

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pp. 48-60

Critics generally regard Michael Kohlhaas (Michael KohlhaasDer Rebell, 1969) to be one of Schlöndorff’s failures, a film whose story leaves audiences cool, whose acting is inappropriate and unaffecting, one that fails as literary adaptation, as precise political analysis, and as popular entertainment. As literary adaptation, it brings the text of Heinrich von..

Part Two: Brechtian and Profeminist Schlöndorff

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6. “Amphibious” Movies and Formal Experiments

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pp. 63-77

After the critical and commercial failure of Michael Kohlhaas, Schlöndorff entered what one might describe as a period of retrenchment, a period that roughly parallels a transition in the New German Cinema in general. After the burst of activity of the Young German Cinema of the late 1960s, there was something of a lull before the more impressive...

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7. Baal

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pp. 78-87

As an adaptation of Bertolt Brecht’s first play (first written in 1919 but revised several times after that), Schlöndorff’s 16-mm television film Baal (1969) is a bow to German cultural tradition and in particular to the anarchism of late expressionism and Weimar culture. Drawing once again from the stylistic approaches of the French New...

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8. The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach

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pp. 88-99

The subject matter of Schlöndorff’s next film, The Sudden Wealth of the Poor People of Kombach (Der plötzliche Reichtum der armen Leute von Kombach, 1970), is similar to that of Michael Kohlhaas. Both films treat incidents from German history that involve unsuccessful rebellion against oppressive authority. In many ways, Schlöndorff corrected...

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9. The Morals of Ruth Halbfass and Overnight Stay in Tyrol

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pp. 100-111

Volker Schlöndorff based his next film, The Morals of Ruth Halbfass (Die Moral der Ruth Halbfass, 1971), on a rather spectacular murder case that involved a rich Düsseldorff industrialist’s wife, Minouche Schubert. The case was the stuff of tabloid newspaper exposés, and to some extent The Morals of Ruth Halbfass was a calculated attempt by Schlöndorff...

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10. A Free Woman

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pp. 112-120

At first glance, A Free Woman (Strohfeuer, 1972) represents a definite break from Schlöndorff’s earlier work. At least superficially, it is his most optimistic, upbeat movie up to this time, one that constantly tries to please the audience by being genial and ingratiating. This optimism is due to its main character, Elisabeth, who is so different from...

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11. Georgina’s Reasons

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pp. 121-127

Schlöndorff’s next film, Georgina’s Reasons (Georginas Gründe, 1974) would appear to be a rather routine television assignment. It is on the surface a conventional, rather straightforward adaptation of a story by Henry James made as part of a series of five James adaptations coproduced for French and German television, with the other episodes...

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12. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum

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pp. 128-143

In both Schlöndorff’s development and that of the New German Cinema, The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum, 1975) marks an important stage. The mid-1970s saw the West German new wave achieve firm international status, reaching a high point at the New York Film Festival of 1975 where Werner

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13. Coup de Grâce

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pp. 144-154

Despite its modest claims, Volker Schlöndorff’s twelfth film, Coup de Grâce (Der Fangschuss, 1976), can be considered a jewel among his creations. This film brings the 1920s heritage to life, thanks to quilted jackets, frozen landscapes, impersonal firing squads, uniformed soldiers folk dancing at warravaged estates: images, sound, and texture...

Part Three: The International Schlöndorff

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14. A German Consciousness for an International Audience

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pp. 157-163

With the production of The Tin Drum (1978–79), Volker Schlöndorff moved into a new phase of his career, a third period in his work that we call his international period. This period comprised two other major features, Circle of Deceit (1981) and Swann in Love (1983), as well as documentaries and contributions to omnibus films. Schlöndorff’s feature...

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15. The Tin Drum

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pp. 164-182

The Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1979) holds a key place in Volker Schlöndorff’s career. As a multiple prizewinner, The Tin Drum represents, along with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), the apotheosis of critical, popular, and commercial success of the New German Cinema. This adaptation of...

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16. Just for Fun, Just for PlayKaleidoscope Valeska Gert, The Candidate, and War and Peace

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pp. 183-193

If Schlöndorff in his international period moves in the direction of large-scale international productions, he also takes periodic breaks from bigger budget filmmaking through involvement with more modest documentary projects and contributions to collective filmmaking efforts. We have already mentioned his “Antigone” episode in...

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17. Circle of Deceit

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pp. 194-205

After the success of The Tin Drum and the change of pace of The Candidate, Schlöndorff planned to direct another film written by Günter Grass. The general subject of Kopfgeburten (Headbirth) was to have been the relationship between developed nations, such as West Germany, and the Third World. Grass and Schlöndorff planned to have the script...

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18. Swann in Love

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pp. 206-215

For his next assignment, Schlöndorff signed onto a project that had previously daunted such film artists as Luchino Visconti and Joseph Losey—an adaptation from Marcel Proust’s multivolume novel Remembrance of Things Past (À la recherche du temps perdu). The German filmmaker’s Swann in Love (Un amour de Swann), shot in France in the...

Part Four: The American Schlöndorff

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19. A German Filmmaker in the United States

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pp. 219-222

After the completion of Swann in Love, Schlöndorff traveled to New York, where his brother Detlef had been living and where he had originally planned a three-month sojourn to seek a change of scene (Siclier 10). The stay became an extended one. With the production of Death of a Salesman (1985) at the then recently renovated Astoria film studios...

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20. Death of a Salesman

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pp. 223-233

Death of a Salesman marks a departure for Volker Schlöndorff. It was his first film made in the United States from an American subject, his first Englishlanguage production since Michael Kohlhaas, and his first screen adaptation of a play since Baal. The production, presented on U.S. television on September 15, 1985, was an enormous critical and...

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21. A Gathering of Old Men

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pp. 234-246

To some extent, Volker Schlöndorff’s well-received Death of a Salesman may have been something of a “calling card” picture, a work designed to prove to American producers that Schlöndorff could work in English and make a film acceptable to a mass American market. For much of the late 1980s, Schlöndorff worked from a New York base, and his next...

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22. The Handmaid’s Tale

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pp. 247-261

The Handmaid’s Tale represents Schlöndorff’s first feature-length contribution to the science fiction genre, but it also continues some of his earlier thematic and structural preoccupations. It is one of a number of works exploring, both in print and in screen adaptations that usually followed the novels, the science fiction subgenre that portrays...

Part Five: The Post-Wall Schlöndorff

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23. A Filmmaker for the European Community

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pp. 265-274

Schlöndorff’s next period, which we call his “Post-Wall” period, is not marked by a completely clear transition but essentially comprises the director’s work from 1990 until the present. One might see the period beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. With the subsequent reunification of Germany, Schlöndorff reorients...

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24. Voyager

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pp. 275-288

Almost immediately after the American release of The Handmaid’s Tale, Schlöndorff began production of “Last Call for Passenger Faber,” an adaptation of Max Frisch’s 1957 novel Homo Faber. The project, which was finally released under the title Voyager in the United States and Homo Faber in Germany, was one that Schlöndorff thought...

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25. The Ogre

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pp. 289-302

Asuperficial viewing of Volker Schlöndorff’s The Ogre (1996) cannot fail to produce in the mind of the spectator familiar with Schlöndorff’s earlier work a whole network of references and parallels to the director’s other films. The opening scenes in a boys’ boarding school rework elements of Young Törless. A naive hero who has a boy’s psyche...

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26. Billy, How Did You Do It? and Palmetto

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pp. 303-308

During this period, Schlöndorff’s model became Billy Wilder, whose negotiation of the commerce-art high wire was the subject of Billy, How Did You Do It? (1992). Schlöndorff’s relation to Wilder had gone back to the 1970s when Wilder, having seen The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum, sent the younger director a note, calling it the best German film since...

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27. The Legend of Rita and “The Perfect Soldier”

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pp. 309-318

Schlöndorff’s next film, The Legend of Rita (Die Stille nach dem Schuss, 2000), took an approach almost totally antithetical to that in his preceding feature, Palmetto. The Legend of Rita was a low-budget film, made without stars, in a deliberately drab, realistic manner. It also marked a return by Schlöndorff to German-language production and a...

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28. Conclusion

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pp. 319-325

In writing this book, we intended to be neither uncritical champions of Volker Schlöndorff nor completely detached reporters. Rather, the book’s goal has been to assess a film career whose significance has come largely from works categorized either as qualified successes or interesting failures. Schlöndorff is important not because he has directed...


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pp. 329-333

Appendix: U.S. Film, DVD, and Video Sources

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pp. 334-336


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pp. 337-339

Works Cited and Consulted

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pp. 340-356


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pp. 357-369

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Author Biographies

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Hans-Bernhard Moeller is the author of “Literatur zur Zeit des Faschismus,” in Geschichte der deutschen Literatur, edited by Ehrhard Bahr, and editor of European Exiles and Latin America. He has contributed critical film studies to many omnibus volumes and to journals such as...

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9780809389391
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809332007

Page Count: 384
Publication Year: 2002